An exhibition on now at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, confidently asserts that Moby-Dick is the “most persistently pictured of all American novels.” A surely unverifiable claim, though it makes intuitive sense: if you were an illustrator, wouldn’t you want to draw or paint or engrave images of a giant white whale arcing above the waves while little men on little boats brace to be smashed to smithereens—as opposed to, say, four sisters bringing their Christmas supper to a poor family, or a boy and a man drifting down a lazy river on a raft?

Maybe I’ve stacked the deck a bit, but “Draw Me Ishmael: The Book Arts of Moby Dick” makes its case with verve, wit, and more than four dozen different editions of Herman Melville’s 1851 masterwork, Moby-Dick; or The Whale, ranging from the first American edition to volumes illustrated by several generations of well- and lesser-known artists and illustrators; I was surprised to find Alex Katz and LeRoy Neiman among the ranks.

A custom-bound 1930 edition of the book by Chaim Ebanks and Susan Ebanks of Devon, England’s Exeter Bookbinders.

Also on display: a movie-tie-in edition from 1930 with John Barrymore on the cover as a resolute Captain Ahab; a 1957 Classics Illustrated–style adaptation from Mexico (Llamame Ismael); cleverly engineered pop-up books, foldout books, and telescoping books; postmodern efforts by graphic artists that slice and dice Melville’s text the way a hip-hop artist picks apart and recombines old beats.

If some of those choices sound aggressively idiosyncratic, well, so is Moby-Dick. Fair’s fair.

As you may know, the novel was a flop on first arrival, consigned to an early and watery grave. (As you may not know, it was first published in London, though the U.S. edition followed swiftly.) It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that Moby-Dick ascended to Great American Novel status, following a critical reassessment of Melville that picked up steam around his centennial, in 1919. (My centennial is in 2058, just saying.)

A page out of a 1957 graphic adaptation of the book, illustrated by Luis Martínez, Othón Luna, and Victaleano León, and with text by Eduardo Baez and Enrique Cárdenas Jr.

According to the exhibition’s curator, Dan Lipcan, director of the museum’s Phillips Library, the first fully illustrated version of the novel, published in 1930 by the modernist Rockwell Kent, was critical to that shift in reputation. “Kent brought it to life for people in a way it hadn’t been before,” Lipcan says. This was no small thing: by placing illustrations every two or three pages amid a dense, sometimes hallucinatory, sometimes instructional text that intimidates many readers, “Kent helped people get through it.” A request: Will some terrific artist out there do the same for Absalom, Absalom!?

“Draw Me Ishmael: The Book Arts of Moby Dick” will be on at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, until January 4, 2026

Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult